March 4, 2009 The Pump Handle 2Comment

Or is it: what wouldn’t we know without investigative journalist Andrew Schneider???  Would the town Libby, Montana mean anything?  How about the words Zonolite, Diacetyl, or GRAS?  These terms and places are familiar because of Andy Schneider, the Pulitzer Prize (and other) award winning reporter, who’s an integral part of our public health community.  Schneider’s worked recently for papers in Seattle, St. Louis, Baltimore and back to Seattle, but no matter where his feet land, stellar investigations follow.         

Right now, it appears that Schneider is staked out at the Russell Smith Courthouse in Missoula, Montana providing us a day-to-day accounts of the federal criminal trial against W.R. Grace and five Grace officials.  They are charged with conspiring to cover-up the health hazard the company created by mining asbestos-containing vermiculite in the town of Libby, MT. 

He’s covering the trial on his website “Andrew Schneider Investigates” with some of his reporting also published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  I’ve admired Andrew’s last 10-years of work, starting with his initial stories about the public health disaster in Libby, MT.  (I was working at MSHA at the time, and believe me his reporting forced us to examine our own practices, especially rethinking how air samples to detect asbestos fibers are collected in dusty mining conditions.  It will be impossible to see microscopic asbestos fibers if the sampling filter is also coated in fine mineral dust—dust that is ubiquitous at mine sites.)  Ultimately, Schneider’s articles (173 in total published in the Seattle and St. Louis papers) were the basis of his 2004 book “An Air That Kills.”     

In Schneider’s February 26 post (just 4 days into the trial) he writes:

“It’s bizarre and a bit prickly to sit in a federal courtroom and watch a story that you broke a decade ago, then chased with about 240 follow-ups and a book, being played out in front of you.  It becomes surreal when the judge talks about the book from the bench and defense lawyers introduce excerpts into evidence and then do dramatic readings to the star witness for the prosecution.”

Schneider’s prose make me feel like I’m sitting right in the courtroom with him:

The prosecution’s most knowledgeable witness, Paul Peronard, EPA’s on-scene coordinator for Libby, sat in the witness chair and listened to comments he made years ago on which I had reported.  …The 23-year veteran of the EPA held his own and kept his cool.  His straight-talking answers drew occasional smiles from some jurors and scowls from members of the defense team.  But even he was puzzled when defense lawyers started reading back comments he made years earlier.

The first was a Seattle P-I story from 2005 which discussed Peronard, and Drs. Aubrey Miller and Chris Weis having a dinner at the MK Steakhouse on an elk-clogged road 10 miles out of Libby.  The trio had just left a late night community meeting where residents were seething that the international chemical company that owned the polluting mine had not yet been brought up on criminal charges.

“Grace has been telling the same lie for over 40 years,” Peronard said. “They still maintain that insulation and other products made from Libby vermiculite has little or no asbestos in it.  The courts have ruled that people have died because Grace concealed the danger from their workers, from the town, and from their customers.”  Peronard understood the town’s frustration, the lawyer read.  “What Grace did was criminal,” he said. “There’s got to be more that the government could do.”

“A murmur went through the spectators,” Schneider wrote on his website.  “The lawyer questioned whether he said it and asked if it was accurate.  ‘It’s pretty much what I said,’ Peronard said.”

 I got chills reading this, did you?   I felt the same when reading Schneider’s posts from the first day of the trial:

What hurt was watching Norita clutching the cowboy hat that belonged to Les, her husband.  The sweet-voiced singing cowboy and Libby miner called me on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2007. He said he wasn’t going to live to see ‘Grace held accountable’ and made me promise that someone would take his favorite hat to the trial. He died of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, 24 days later.

Andy’s post features a lovely photo of Norita Skramstad holding Les Skramstad’s cowboy hat.   That’s what is magical about Schneider’s writing: the people we come to know because of him.   He helps remind me that public health is about people.  If I lose sight of that, I lose my way.

Andrew Schneider’s reporting from the W.R. Grace trial will be the best public health reading you do all day.   Read Andrew Schneider Investigates and pass it on to a friend.  And, if you want to meet the man himself, he will take the stage on March 28 at the 5th Annual International Asbestos Conference.  This event, sponsored by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, is an opportunity for health science researchers, physicians, health and labor advocates, patients and their families to discuss treatment options and research findings, collaborate on initiatives to ban asbestos, and remember those who lost their lives to asbestos-related diseases.  More information about the conference is available here.

2 thoughts on “What’d we know without Andrew Schneider?

  1. He’s one of a dying breed – actually two: 1) an investigative journalist; and 2) a journalist who knows something about science.

  2. As someone who was born in Libby and now studies public health my interest in this story is both scientific and personal and I’ve been following the as much as I can.

    It is nice to know that such resourceful people still exist. People that make you feel like they care about tiny communities such as Libby and the people who are in them. People who try to get you to listen. As shocking as it is that something like this could happen in the first place it is perhaps even more surprising that such an articulate reporting of the events even made it out of a secluded Montana town. Bravo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.